Restaurant Reviews

Review: Charlie Palmer at The Joule

Embedded in the ceiling, high above the dining room, is a series of lighted, saucer-like depressions. Huge silvery propellers are fixed within, but they don't spin like ceiling fans. They rotate in short, precise increments. To spin would invite bedlam. Servers would stumble with vertigo. "It's very disruptive to the dining environment," says a server.

He tells us these bladed things are actually turbines, integral components in Charlie Palmer at The Joule's "breezy" interior design theme. This theme was created by noted designer Adam Tihany, who sought to reflect Texas' rank as the nation's top producer of wind-driven electricity. His design is effective, maybe too much so. You could interpret the relative stasis of those ceiling blades as an ode to the near impotence of wind energy as a viable power source. Slumping breezes caused a power grid emergency in Texas last month, triggering blackouts. Add to that exploding turbines; high megawatt costs; the pureeing of golden eagles, falcons and hawks; and NIMBY elites who think wind energy is terrific until it mars their multimillion dollar views, and wind power supporters turn out to be blowhards.

Charlie Palmer's isn't. It's an urban shrine to relaxed edginess with a side of simple sustenance. It slyly inserts traditional steakhouse touches to stir up your beef jones and then scrambles them to whet your curiosity. There's wood, but it's slatted walnut backlit in amber. There's leather, but it replaces white tablecloths with placemats that alternate between chocolate and butterscotch, the latter showing up in chairs with long rectangles notched out of the backs. The floor is limestone.

Charlie Palmer's makes its home on the ground floor of a circa 1920 building that promises to become the Joule Urban Resort sometime in June. Maybe. The restaurant took shape in what was once a downtown five and dime.

The restaurant is fronted by the heavily glassed Next Vintage Wine Shop, which houses roughly a third of Charlie Palmer's 704-bottle wine list—ready for retail deployment at $25-$35 off list prices. This is just the first blow in the Charlie Palmer one-two punch of wine service innovation. The second is the list itself: an electronic touch-screen book that permits perusal by bottle, glass, region, varietal and style. Check the boxes next to the wines of interest and haggle over the pros and cons of each with a member of the sommelier team headed by former Pappas Bros. Steakhouse wine director Drew Hendricks. Hendricks recently earned the coveted (and gruelingly acquired) master sommelier designation, making him only the second master sommelier in Dallas after Barbara Werley, whom Pappas poached from The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, as Hendricks' replacement.

Though these wine tablets consume untold watts of wind-supplemented energy, the tablet is an ingenious little tool, much more efficient than riffling through a voluminous wine list with Lilliputian typography. With it we found a relatively inexpensive Taurino Salice Salentino 2001 from Puglia with gobs of bright fruit layered over that spicy, blood-metallic earthiness that makes lighter Italian wines as at home with fish as they are with drooling steak.

It was a gripping accompaniment to Charlie Palmer's salumi selection, a platter slatted with rows of milky, translucent sheets of pig's cheek and spicy ovals of Hungarian papriko, Spanish lomo, Andouille sausage, capicola and sopressata. These meats rest near a knoll of green beans rendered into gherkins by a sweetish pickling that's spiced with jalapeño. This crackling sweet scrubs the fat contrails left from the cured meat.

Chef Charlie Palmer heads an empire that includes Aureole, Astra and Métrazur in New York, Charlie Palmer Steak in Las Vegas and the Dry Creek Kitchen in Sonoma, California. Aureole in Las Vegas is marked by a 42-foot-tall "wine tower" stocked with Lucite wine bins where a pair of "wine angels," young women in black cat suits and harnesses, retrieve bottles. Palmer is no stranger to complex drama.

Yet his food philosophy is simple. He calls it "progressive American" cuisine, or American substance subjected to European craft. His dishes contain protein centerpieces sizzled with flashes of Mediterranean or Asian. Executing it is the chef, Scott Romano.

Foie gras is a quivering lobe in heirloom apple rosemary jus, emulsified fats billowing in the jus flow like jewels.

Seared shrimp kebabs savored with a tamarind chive glaze and bedded in a sweetish Sicilian relish of onion, celery, eggplant and garlic were juicy, resilient pieces of plumpness.

Servers assemble in teams, ostensibly to heighten attentiveness, though on our first visit we twiddled our thumbs for a good while before one paid us a visit. She stressed that the food is simply prepared, minimally garnished. Servers ask about shellfish allergies to steer diners from creations that may trigger attacks, such as the lobster corny dog amuse-bouche: a bullet of chopped lobster meat encased in a light crust and mounted on a skewer. A dab of mustard crème fraîche lies underneath. "I'm not a bad waiter, but I'm a terrible EMT," said a server. There are polished and covered metal dishes of Brussels sprouts or bok choy in brown butter or trumpet royale mushrooms in toasted garlic.

There is steak: wagyu flat iron, bison rib eye and a dry-aged New York sirloin on a plate smeared in a lithe Cabernet reduction. You can spoon a lustrous marrow flan from a polished yellow bone over the charred steak crags and watch it melt into a butterscotch slick. Marvel how it meshes with the nutty, extracted earthiness sloughed off by the dry-aging process.

Or relish fish. Monkfish possesses a wafer-thin crust of ground lentil, driving this "poor man's lobster" further into peasantry. The rich fish rests on a vibrant citrus endive marmalade. Better is the stuffed rainbow trout, a near whole fish stuffed with a chorizo and wild mushroom hash. Chorizo is hard to tease out of the hash, deliberate no doubt as trout has a delicate, pearlescent flesh that could easily be trampled by chorizo's assertiveness.

Better still among the fishes is arctic char in a roasted porcini emulsion with crisped skin and a scattering of fried Brussels sprout leaves creating an arresting textural effect for the moist fish, which peels off in rich flakes.

Duck is a crisped leg and a honey-glazed breast resting on a mound of salsify. It's as dense as it is tender, as pink as it is juicy. Finish with a dastardly sour Key lime tart and an assortment of sorbet balls—peach, lemon and pear.

In a sense, Charlie Palmer's at the Joule is the quintessential import because it doesn't feel like an outsourced afterthought. It's seasoned with Texas domesticity, honest stuff. Blowhard or not, Tihany did his work so that Palmer and Romano could do theirs.

1530 Main St., 214-261-4600. Open 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$-$$$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz